For Republicans, Ronald Reagan will always be "The Great Communicator." And one of the lessons Republicans learned from Reagan is never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.
A discussion about whether the federal income tax should be 35% or 39.5%, or whether the capital gains tax should be 25% or 35% -- or zero -- is a debate worth having and one where reasonable arguments exist on both sides.
Those are also debates Republicans and the rich might lose. So, following Reagan, Republicans have decided it is far better to invent "welfare queens" who drive Cadillacs on the taxpayer's dime so as to change the subject away from stale fiscal policy and toward morality tales about lazy Democrats using the confiscatory powers of tyrannical government to rob the virtuous in order to reward the venal.
Republicans, in other words, have traded governing for story-telling where the translation of our political disputes into fairy tales is now ubiquitous on the right. This is evident in the most recent make-believe controversy over President Obama and Elizabeth Warren's "didn't build them" remarks.
Mitt Romney has organized 24 "We Did Build This" campaign events in battleground states featuring local business owners telling their stories about creating and running businesses -- despite the government standing in the way of growth.
It all makes for wonderful theater. But as Think Progress reports, the entire premise of Romney's road show is false. In nearly every instance, Think Progress was able to document how the businesses singled out by Romney did not make it on their own but were instead given a helping hand from government in the form of a grant, subsidy or contract -- sometimes a massive one.
There was Ball Office Products, which was featured at a Romney event in Richmond, Virginia. It got a $635,000 loan through the Small Business Administration in 2012 and later a $52,525 contract with the General Services Administration.
There was Midwest Tapes of Holland, Ohio that received stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. There was Cranston Material Handling Equipment Corporation that got $61,729 in contracts with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was Home Instead Senior Care of Roanoke, Virginia that receives 75% of its funding from Medicare and Medicaid. And on and on it goes.
While this traveling circus was advertised as an opportunity to "allow small business owners the chance to respond to President Obama's claim" that they didn't make it on their own, Think Progress notes the record makes clear that, if anything, the businesses singled out by the Romney campaign "exemplify the combined powers of individual effort and government support that Obama -- and Romney -- have praised."
As for Senator Scott Brown's advertisement against Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent says the lesson from Brown's ad is: "Look, ma, I can lie about Obama's quote, too!"
In the ad Brown criticizes Warren for a restatement of the American social contract that even conservatives like George Will say is commonplace, even cliche - one in which Warren says "no one got rich on their own, no one." Sargent says the new Brown Web video tries to paint Warren as vaguely anti-American and anti-business as when Brown says: "I will never demonize you as business leaders and business owners."
Just as Romney's audio had to edit out chunks of Obama's speech in order to disguise the fact the President talked about "our great American system," Brown also misleads listeners into believing that the President's "didn't build that" line was meant as an insult to business owners, says Sargent.
Sargent says Brown's video "unwittingly demonstrates" just how dumb it really is. Brown tries to create a contrast between Obama and past Democrats like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton - all of whom extolled the virtues of the free enterprise system. Yet, this is something President Obama does all the time, regularly calling the free market "one of the greatest forces for progress and wealth creation the world has ever known."
So, as Sargent says, the only way Brown and Romney can successfully portray President Obama or Warren as both radical and out of step with previous Democratic presidents is by "straight-up lying" about what they really said.
These serial deceptions are not merely opportunistic prevarications designed to gain some temporary or tactical advantage over the GOP's Democratic opponents. Falsifying on such an epic scale can only be part of a concerted conservative effort to change the way we communicate with one another, to invent a whole new language based on deceit, to redefine the assumptions about what's allowed and what's not as we try to conduct the business of our democracy.
The profusion of malicious inventions about Barack Obama's nefarious motives and the secret agenda he intends to unleash to "destroy America as we know it" should voters be reckless enough to give him a second term, is the flip side of Mitt Romney's extraordinary exertions to keep every detail of his future plans and past biography either as vague as possible or safely under lock and key.
All this secrecy isn't Romney's fault alone but rather reflects the urgent needs of today's dominant oligarchy to keep the public as much in the dark as possible about changes over the past 30 years which have shifted wealth and political power upward and to the advantage of the few over the many.
The decision of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party to deliberately use tax and de-regulatory policy to favor finance capital over labor and manufacturing beginning in 1980 has had its predictable results.
Since Reagan's election, we've seen the steady concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands along with the accompanying rise in inequality. We've seen the weakening of the state and the rise of a financial plutocracy that understandably wants to dominate the political sphere in exactly the same way they control the economic. Hence the attacks on public sector unions, the disenfranchisement of Democratic-leaning voters even in defiance of Department of Justice injunctions and a Republican Supreme Court willing to overturn a century of settled law so that the rich can let their money do the talking.
Obscuring this harsh new reality with celebrations of a mutant American capitalism that invokes memories of a free market that no longer exists (if it ever really did) is a priority for today's plutocrats who are desperate to find a legitimizing narrative that will help explain and rationalize their outsized wealth and power.
Richard Cohen of the Washington Post was onto something the other day when he said it's not so much the specifics of what might be in Mitt Romney's secret tax returns that counts. What's important is that he refuses to release them at all.
Romney has flipped and flopped on nearly every important issue -- abortion, gun control, even his signature health reform as Massachusetts Governor. So, Cohen thinks it's telling that Romney would chose to make his single principled stand on not giving us details of his personal finances.
Cohen suspects that the real scandal that might be exposed should Romney relent to the release of those returns is one that would incriminate the free market capitalist system itself -- and show just how much it has changed since George Romney ran for president in 1968 and had no qualms releasing 12 years of income tax returns.
But the elder Romney was a salaried executive who "actually made something (cars) or did something (governed)," says Cohen. George's son, in contrast, manufactured nothing and earned his wealth by means of financial manipulation and leveraging.
And "on paper," says Cohen, "it could look ugly" -- and not just for Mitt Romney, but for all those vulture capitalists and predatory corporate raiders who've been contributing the big bucks to make Romney the boss.
"For Mitt Romney, there are no assembly lines, no factories or mines -- just back offices and computer terminals and such esoterica as the infinitesimal difference between what the Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) should be and what it is," says Cohen.
Romney was loyal to no company or industry -- just to his investors, said Cohen. "The making of such money is concealed, based on the exotic manipulation of numbers and the disregard of people. Only a relatively few know how to do this sort of thing, and they don't much like to talk about it. Romney, as we already know, is one of those people."
Romney may be hiding his taxes, in other words, says Cohen, not because it would reveal anything new about him but because it might reveal something new about us, namely that "we're suckers."
This goes to show why conservative rhetoric and arguments have become so irrational and incoherent: Because they are being used almost exclusively in the service of protecting privilege instead of for the real-world demands of governing.
The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn seconds this motion when he says another manifestation of "just how unhinged Republicans have become" is the extraordinary lengths to which Romney, Brown and other Republicans are now willing to go to falsify statements by President Obama and other Democrats that in their proper context are not the least controversial.
To win, Republicans must distort the President's economic record and intentions, says Cohn, because "virtually every mainstream economist, left and right" agrees that "sometimes market economies stall and that government can take action to get them going again."
Even Romney's own economic advisers agree this is true - as does Romney himself when caught in an unguarded moment.
Cohn says there's an honest debate to be had "over the size, shape, and timing of optimal government intervention during downturns." But it's unusual to get an argument like the one from the GOP over whether government intervention makes sense at all.
Indeed, says Cohn, among credentialed economists, the Republican economic point-of-view gets virtually no support -- zero.
Cohn cites Bloomberg columnists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers who report on the findings of the Economic Experts Panel -- a recurring survey of about 40 economists from around the country that includes Democrats, Republicans and independent academics.
The Bloomberg writers report a "remarkable consensus among mainstream economists, including those from the left and right, on most major macroeconomic issues." All seemed in agreement that "the debate in Washington about economic policy is phony. It's manufactured. And it's entirely political."
The Republican talking point that Obama's stimulus didn't reduce unemployment is wrong they say - in fact 92% of economists agree it did create jobs. On the question of bank bailouts, no economist disputes that the bailouts lowered unemployment. Market factors rather than energy policy were responsible for gas price hikes, unlike GOP claims, say the experts. The oft-cited Republican claim that tax cuts will boost the economy and pay for themselves may have been true when the tax rate was 91% -- but today with taxes at 60-year lows it's pure "fantasy."
The debate in Washington, the experts agree, "has become completely unmoored from this consensus, and in a particular direction: Angry Republicans have pushed their representatives to adopt positions that are at odds with the best of modern economic thinking. That may be good politics, but it's terrible policy."
I know, I know, "experts" are always liberals and therefore "biased." There's even a scientific consensus on climate change, as well, despite what we all know about global warming being a hoax.
But with the facts and the experts all lining up against them, the only real card Republicans have left to play, as Sargent says, is to somehow fool a frightened public with wild conspiracy theories that President Obama "demeans success," harbors "active ill will toward private business owners and entrepreneurs" - and that this irrational animosity is all that stands in the way of a real economic recovery.
Republicans must "sow doubts about Obama's alleged intentions and hostility towards private enterprise and individual initiative," says Sargent, so as to give voters "a narrative about the Obama presidency and an explanation for the sluggish recovery that will make them more receptive to GOP tax and de-regulatory policies they might otherwise greet with skepticism" (emphasis mine).
This claim, that Obama "demeans success" is therefore central to the Republican Party's entire campaign strategy between now and November. And without lies like the one about the "didn't build that" quote, that narrative collapses, says Sargent.
Consider, for example, what National Review columnist Mona Charen wrote just the other day.
Unless you are a regular Fox News watcher or connoisseur of conservative media, you cannot fully appreciate the extent to which rank-and-file conservatives are angrily arrayed against an imaginary Barack Obama, a president who does not exist except as a figment of their (or Roger Ailes') fervid speculations.
"There are some on the right who believe that Barack Obama is intentionally steering the United States into disaster -- that he privately rejoices in the dismal economy because it partially fulfills his objective to bring the country down," writes Charen. "This strikes me as, at the very least, overwrought."
Yet, she says, the President's entire economic plan "has not been about growth -- it has been about 'fairness.'" And in the name of "fairness," Charen asserts Obama has "created the most anti-business climate" since FDR.
Exhibit A is Steve Wynn, CEO of Wynn Resorts, who complains that "this administration is the greatest wet blanket to business and progress and job creation in my lifetime."
He'd prove it to us too if he had "the next three hours." But since he doesn't we'll just have to take his word for it that "all of us in this marketplace are frightened to death about all the new regulations -- regulations coming from left and right."
With the exception of the Affordable Care Act that the CBO says will reduce the national deficit by about $100 billion, the only proof Charen offers to back up Wynn's claims about "new regulations coming at us from left and right" are trivial in comparison to the larger economy, things such as: the EPA regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant; the technical legal dispute at the National Labor Relations Board over the Boeing plant in South Carolina; "net neutrality," the strict enforcement of racial and gender quotas; and Charen's assertion that the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is "practically freezing small-business lending" by, presumably, preventing big banks from cheating them.
All in all, says Charen, President Obama has spun "fantasies" about today's industries, fulminated against "millionaires and billionaires" and betrayed "a fundamentally childish urge to punish success."
What Charen calls "punish success" might just as easily have been called utilizing more than 70 years of accumulated Keynesian economic experience, which tells us that when markets fail and we are mired in an economic depression it's good policy to take from the rich and give to the poor in order to spark the demand that can restart your economy. But from the point of view of a Republican Party trying to protect the wealthy from higher taxes at all cost, it's much better to talk about bad morals and disreputable intentions
Gordon S. Wood, early American historian and author of the just-released The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, suggests there's a reason the right wing Tea Party instinctively reached for colonial-era imagery to validate their movement: The American Revolution, too, was a period saturated in conspiratorial fears.
"There were plots by ministers, by the queen, by the aristocracy, by the clergy - everywhere there were secret managers behind the scenes pulling the strings of the great events of the revolution," says Wood.
To most of us, such conspiracy theories, then as now, are "a crude and peculiar sort of causal explanation" because they rest entirely "on individual intentions and motives," says Wood.
As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his own famous essay on the bitter fruit of crack-pot conspiracies and the "paranoid style" that births them, decisive events are frequently taken out of the "stream of history" and made the consequence "of someone's will."
To those who, for whatever reason, are susceptible to the malevolent and apocalyptic conspiracies hatched up by propaganda vehicles like Fox News, things don't just happen, said Hofstadter, "they are brought about, step by step, by will and intention."
In other words, says Hofstadter, the paranoid style "is a mode of causal attribution based on particular assumptions about the nature of social reality and the necessity of moral responsibility in human affairs. It presumes a world of autonomous, freely acting individuals who are capable of directly and deliberately bringing about events through their decisions and actions, and who thereby can be held morally responsible for what happens."
There are some people who are saying today that President Obama's phantom statement about businesses who did not build their own business may be his biggest blunder to date. But if that is true it's a sign of the times that the President committed this imagined gaffe not for anything he actually said but for the opening he gave Republicans to lie about him.